Social animals seek power in surprisingly complex ways News and research

Power in non-human animals used to play out in such a nice and simple way. Bigger, stronger animals hit smaller, weaker. They slipped away and the winner received the prize. Or so we thought.

To be sure, there are enough such brutal battles going on in nature to make everyone’s war against every theorist Thomas Hobbes smile. But we now know that the pursuit of power in the animal kingdom is oh so much more subtle, interesting and, I dare say, beautiful than we previously thought.

The pursuit of power – which I define here as the ability to control, control or influence the behavior of others and / or the ability to control access to resources – affects almost all aspects of the life of group animals. Winners in the battle for power get more food, or more friends, or better, safer housing, and sometimes they get a combination of such change.

The strategic aspects of power in animals are astounding. We biologists believed that animals were like simple robots that responded to fixed algorithms determined solely by their genes. During the breeding season, stickleback fish become intensely territorial and get a bright red color on the underside that attracts females. The Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen, who shared a Nobel Prize for having founded animal behavior, discovered that if you show a sticky territory owner practically everything that is red, it attacks: “Even a red mail van passing our windows at a distance of 100 yards, “wrote Tinbergen,” can get the males in the tank to load their glass side in that direction. ” But over time, accelerated by evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and George Price’s article that uses game theory to analyze non-human behavior, ethologists realized that how an animal behaves is greatly influenced by what its opponents do. Animals judge suspected opponents, spy on others, modify their behaviors when seen, form alliances to suppress rivals, and more. Studies of the dynamics of power show how complex their strategies can become.

For three weeks in March 1990, two ethologists at the University of Hamburg, Dierk Franck and Alexander Ribowski, who were sitting on the shores of various streams and streams in Veracruz, Mexico, collected data on aggression in a group of nearly a hundred fish called green swordfish. . From the attacks and retreats, the snapping and blinking, the side views and body rams they observed, Franck and Ribowski discovered that these fish form beautiful dominance hierarchies, but the researchers were not sure how they did it.

A few years later, when Ryan Earley joined my lab as a doctoral student, he aimed to explore even deeper into the nature of power in sword tails. After hundreds of hours of looking at men in the lab, he felt confident that the tails of the sword were conducting reconnaissance or what in the animal behavior literature is called eavesdropping. Listeners use information they receive from watching other fights and change their assessment of the combat capability of those they have gathered information about.

In an ingenious experiment involving one-way mirrors, Earley discovered that sword-tailed spies avoid interacting with the winner of a contest they have seen. When it comes to interacting with males that they have seen lose, fishermen follow an exciting rule: if a loser offers relatively little resistance, go after him; but if he has moxie and fights well before he finally capitulates, stay away from him. The Swordtail’s intelligence gathering and how it uses that information shows in a good way that natural selection sculptes subtle and complex strategies used during power struggles, even in an animal whose brain could sit comfortably on the head of a needle.

Other animals strategically change the way they behave depending on who is looking at them, and try to change the balance of power in their own way. An exciting example of this strategy comes from the ravens that Thomas Bugnyar, Georgine Szipl and their colleagues have studied at Konrad Lorenz Field Station near the village of Grünau in the Austrian Alps.

From the ravens’ perspective on the station, a human audience for power struggles is not worth thinking about, but an audience consisting of other ravens is definitely. Victims of aggression often make defensive calls that entice crowded audience members to come to their aid. But Bugyner and Szipl felt that there was an extra layer of complexity at work as well. They filmed victims giving a defensive call, and when they looked at the tapes, they noted not only the duration and number of calls but also the identity of other ravens within 25 meters of the victim. It turns out that ravens on the wrong side of a fight temper their defensive calls depending on who is watching and listening. The number of call victims was highest when potential allies – either relatives or longtime employees (friends) – were in the audience. Even more remarkably, victims reduced their talk frequency when their opponents had potential allies in the audience: no point in drawing even more attention to an unfortunate situation when it could make matters worse.

For the dwarf mangoes in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, the most intense power struggles take place between groups. Michael Cant and his colleagues wanted to know why, and found that it all begins because genetic relationships in mango groups build up over generations. This arrangement can lead to inbreeding, but dwarf mango females have found a simple but clever way around this problem: look for buddies in nearby groups. When a female goes out to look for a friend, males from her group follow her, which often leads to a total battle between males from the two groups. These are not beautiful deals; they often involve many victims, including deaths, among men. But the female who was looking for a friend often finds one while the males from her group are otherwise engaged.

Spying sword tails, cunning ravens and intriguing mongooses are just three examples of how animals make their power play. Power struggles take place on land, underground, in the air and in the water on all continents and have been studied in detail in hundreds of species, including hyenas, caribou, chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, deer, horses, field mice, ravens, larks, viaters, copper snakes , wasps, ants and squid.

The more we learn, the more we discover the innumerable ways in which animals continue their relentless pursuit of power.

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